Oregon stands in the hearts and minds of many across the world as a bastion of nature — the dripping green kind — centered around water. From the flowing tides of the Oregon Coast amongst iconic rock stacks like Haystack Rock to the heavenly expanse of the Columbia River Gorge, the Beaver State provides abundant H20 in practically any inspiring natural setting imaginable. Perhaps no better example of this primary element of life is iconic Silver Falls State Park, literally gushing with water all year long. Within the park’s shrine of moss covered beauty, the Trail of Ten Falls is perhaps one of the most accessible opportunities to explore the essence of Oregon amongst an inspiring array of fascinating geology.
This article provides helpful information to customize your experience exploring the Trail of Ten Falls — which winds through the natural wonder of Silver Falls State Park in Oregon
Silver Falls is the largest state park in Oregon, boasting more than 9,000 acres that contain an expansive web of trails (24m hiking, 14m horse and 4m bike). My writing focuses on the Trail of Ten Falls, which can be visited by traversing about 7.5 miles — mostly via the Canyon Trail — of paths in and around the vegetation covered lava plain that provide the dramatic backdrop for ten inspiring ‘works of art’. If the distance seems too much, don’t fret. Shorter trail options are available from three distinct parking areas, making the park very accessible to most fitness and experience levels. Follow this guide to witness the magic of nature’s power at all ten waterfalls or your own customized version on a moisture rich day trip to Silver Creek Falls.
Table of Contents:
- Silver Falls State Park verses Silver Creek Falls
- Silver Falls State Park weather and planning
- Getting to the Trail of Ten Falls
- Silver Falls State Park map
- South Falls — showcase of Silver Creek Falls
- Winter Falls — Silver Creek Falls — bubbles run over
- North Falls — Oregon geological landmark
Silver Falls State Park verses Silver Creek Falls
Growing up I always knew this area as Silver Creek Falls. Many Summers our large extended family would convene in the wide grassy meadow for reunions. Each time, a familiar relative would take my hand and accompany me along the dramatic cliffs and up and down the numerous steps — sometimes larger than my little feet could jump without help. While the complete Trail of Ten Falls, about 7.5 miles total, was too long for me, we’d usually explore the more concise loop around South Falls, which is an up and down hike around both South Falls and Lower South Falls — just over two miles. Later on in college life, I hiked the entire trail many times.
Silver Creek is the bubbling water feature that provides life to all ten waterfalls, in a temperate rainforest setting amongst ancient lava flows that have since grown over with ferns, moss and a mixture of maple, cedar and douglas fir trees. The unique aspect of this area is the two branches — the north and south fork — that both cascade down through the canyon in such a way to produce breathtakingly high fountains that seem to aerate the water into a thick mist on the canyon floor. The two come together just beyond Lower South Falls to form a unified river. Silver Creek continues a winding journey through nearby Silverton, Oregon and eventually ends up joining the Willamette River. Although this location has been a State Park since the Great Depression era, some locals (and my family elders) still sometimes refer to this area as Silver Creek Falls — for the ten waterfalls that receive their life from the fresh Silver Creek.
Silver Falls State Park weather and planning
The Trail of Ten Falls is located in a dense temperate rainforest that receives over 80 inches of rain each year. Like all areas of Oregon to the west of the mountains, rain is a possibility any time, so always have strong water proof outer shell on hand. Since the waterfalls blow mist on the trails, be prepared with waterproof boots and/or hiking shoes to provide enough traction to avoid slipping. Take layers, especially because early mornings any time of year can be cool, opening up to warmer afternoons and evenings. Shorts can be worn in the sunnier Summer months while warm hats and gloves would be a wise decision in the Winter. Check the local weather before heading out — Sublimity, Oregon is technically the town associated with Silver Falls State Park.
The trail is open in Winter, which can be a sublime time to visit a park in hibernation but not without a unique beauty (all the photos in this article were taken on a December hike). Moss clings from every branch of the dormant maple trees while the powerful energy of an invigorated Silver Creek pummels each waterfall with full force. Water droplets seem to form on everything in sight in a way that brings life through the slow dripping moisture. Since fewer people explore this area in the off-season, I also appreciate more space and time alone in the forest. I recently wrote a blog post inspired by the flowing waters of this park on a December visit. Please note: any time from Fall to Spring, black ice forms on the country roads in and around the park. Be very careful between dusk and dawn.
A daily State Park Permit is $5 and can be purchased at automatic machines that take credit cards (one at South Falls also accepts cash). Machines are located in the two main parking areas of the park — South Falls and North Falls. It is also possible to buy a 12-month or 24-month State Park Permit for $30 and $50 respectively. Permits should be displayed on the driver’s side dash. Also, as a reminder, do not leave any valuables in your vehicle.
Silver Falls State Park welcomes visitors and their pets to most areas of the park. However, pets are not allowed on the Canyon Trail or on the connecting Winter, Maple Ridge, and Twin Falls trails — which are all part of Trail of Ten Falls. The short walkway to Upper North Falls is pet friendly, as well as the viewpoint to South Falls and a pet exercise/off-leash area in the South Falls Day Use Area.
The area around Silver Falls State Park is rural and cell phone coverage is spotty. AT&T and Verizon will have the best results, but why not leave the phone off and truly connect with the magic of the forest?
Pro-tip: Speaking of cell phones, I always snap a photo of the trailhead map for reference later if I need a little nudge in the right direction (see map photo below).
As typical with most Oregon State Park treasures, expect the waterfalls to be much busier on weekends and throughout the Summer season. Visitors tend to congregate around the viewpoints of South Falls, since it is so accessible from the large parking lot, but the crowds diminish further away from the hustle and bustle of the day use area. The best bet for fewer people on the Trail of Ten Falls tends to be early morning, weekdays, and in Winter months.
South Falls Day Use Area hours (as of this writing 12/2020):
November- January: 8:00am- 5:00pm
February: 8:00am- 6:00pm
March: 8:00am- 8:00pm
April- August: 7:00am- 9:00pm
September: 7:00am- 8:00pm
October: 8:00am- 7:00pm
Getting to the Trail of Ten Falls
Silver Falls State Park is not far from major roadways, making a visit relatively easy from the populated areas of the Willamette Valley — Portland to Salem. Salem is about 40 minutes away and the drive from Portland about 90 minutes. When traveling from Portland, I prefer the beauty of rural Oregon life along Highway 213 (and later Highway 214), which winds through Christmas tree farms and rolling landscape while Mt. Hood peeks out in the distance. It can take a little longer, but the rustic flow provides a pleasant prelude to the world of wonder ahead in the hours of watery goodness. To make this a fun day-trip, follow the Google Maps suggestion below. Silverton and Mt. Angel are two picturesque locations for an after-hike meal (recommended venues shown in red) and the Oregon Garden (in Silverton, OR) can be a delightful stop along the way when time allows.
Silver Falls State Park map
As the largest park in the Oregon State Park system, Silver Falls State Park offers an array of features, from campgrounds to horse trails and even a conference center. A map of the entire park can be found on the State Parks website. I like the map shown above because it succinctly highlights the Trail of Ten Falls. While there are access points from parking areas at North and Winter Falls, the South Falls Day Use Area (marked “you are here” on the photo above) makes for the easiest starting point because there is usually ample parking, larger restrooms and other helpful services. The hike is 4.5 miles from South Falls Day Use Area to North Falls Parking with two return options — 3.0 miles Rim Trail or 4.6 miles backtracking through Rim, Winter, Canyon and Maple Ridge trails. Note: mileage figures are approximate.
I enjoy the Trail of Ten Falls tour in a clockwise fashion, starting from South Falls Day Use Area — where a few hundred feet away the show-stopping view of South Falls infuses nature’s medicine into the veins. Continue to Lower South Falls and onward to the junction with Maple Ridge Trail (returning to the South Falls Day Use Area along a ridge). Keep going on the Canyon Trail, which follows the North Fork of Silver Creek. There’ll be an opportunity to quickly jump off and right back on the trail to in order to visit majestic Double Falls. Hike past the Winter Trail junction and on to North Falls. After the amazing cave-like experience at North Falls, check out Upper North Falls and then carry on with the Rim Trail, paralleling Highway 214 to Winter Falls. The trail eventually intertwines with a bike path before returning to the start of the loop at South Falls Day Use Area.
If the 7.5 mile trek is too much waterfall viewing for one day, try one of three options, or some mixture, listed below.
South Falls — showcase of Silver Creek Falls
Summer is the most popular time of year for visits to the park and there is a wide open meadow area near South Falls that provides opportunity to play in the sunshine and frolic in the adjacent swimming area. But any time of year, the South Falls Day Use Area is humming with people and animals alike — hawks call from high atop douglas fir trees as squirrels on the forest floor scurry to find the nut.
Look for a nearby enclave of historic buildings that mark the 1930’s development by both the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) & Works Projects Administration (WPA) that helped employ people during the Great Depression. Teams of workers forged trails, replanted trees, created campsites and built the historic log cabin buildings enjoyed by thousands of visitors a year since the park’s opening in 1933. The historic complex at South Falls houses a gift shop in a cabin a stone’s throw away from the nostalgic South Falls Lodge that is currently undergoing a management shift and expected to re-open post pandemic.
Only steps away from the historic soul of the park the awe inspiring South Falls awaits to showcase her power. The first glance offers a glorious wide angle view as 177 feet of showering water thunders down to a churning cauldron of pristine mountain runoff in the pools below. Criss cross down the path for various views of the iconic feature, some obscured by the thick foliage of maple leaves that open up as the leaves drop in the Fall and Winter.
Enjoy the path that follows a brown painted wooden fence around a half moon shaped etch into a thick sheet of black rock. These layers are part of the largest lava flow in world history, popping up from earth’s crust and covering a large swath of Oregon and Washington millions of years ago. Today the powerful flow of water projects off a rocky spout in a thunderous manner that seems to beat with the heart. The amazing trail folds in behind the massive gush of water and mist flows in all directions — so even in the warmth of summer expect to be kissed by mother nature’s brief moments of light chill.
Follow the South Fork of Silver Creek along a patchwork of moss laden trees, sword ferns and varieties of forest critters, eventually reaching a series of switchbacks that cascade down the side of steep canyon wall grown over by thick vegetation. Lower South Falls, at 93 feet, is a different, more elegant version of her taller, upstream sister. She is the second waterfall on the trail with passage behind the giant curtain of water. This experience is more intimate since the water cascades from a wider source and the trail feels within arm’s length of the magical flowing liquid (photo above).
Continue backstage through the waterfall and on to the junction with Maple Ridge Trail. The path provides a return to the start of the loop via a series of uphill switchbacks and then a path through a thick forest with peeks into the canyon below. This loop is a great way to experience two of the more beautiful waterfalls on the Trail of Ten Falls — the 2.3 miles takes about an hour.
An even more abbreviated version of this experience is possible by crossing the foot bridge at the base of South Falls, which continues back up the side of the cliff — just a tad under half a mile. Note that no matter the path, except for the initial viewpoint, this adventure requires climbing up and down steps.
Winter Falls — Silver Creek Falls — bubbles run over
Winter Falls has a small parking lot that can accommodate about ten vehicles and does not provide a Day Permit machine, although a permit is still required. While the three most famous falls in the park feature the unique opportunity to move behind the powerful flowing waters of Silver Creek, Winter Falls offers beauty in a different, more subtle way. The 134 foot cascading water seems to repel off the rocky lava cliff — bouncing on and off the moss soaked rocks on the way to a modest pool of water below.
This arm of the rainforest canyon is roughly the mid-point between the two ends of the Trail of Ten Falls and is the best place to access the middle waterfalls without committing to the full 7.5 mile hike. Start here for a great hour-plus hike that spans 2.4 miles and offers viewing Winter Falls (134 ft), Middle North Falls (106ft), Drake Falls (27 ft), Lower North Falls (30 ft), and Double Falls (178 ft).
From the parking lot take the steep downward path to views of the striking Winter Falls, which sets up perfectly for a great group photo or selfie. Continue through an exquisite valley floor rich with countless textures and shades of green — even in Winter. Look up at the giant douglas fir trees towering over the oxygen-rich space, seemingly full of old world wisdom. Follow the babbling brook to the junction with Silver Creek and cross the foot bridge to join Canyon Trail.
Make a left at Canyon Trail and prepare for a greatest hits of flowing water! Within a mile a collective 341 feet of flourishing churning beauty reaches out to inspire cleansing of the soul. Since this “middle” zone is further from the two main parking areas, fewer people are around, giving a better feel of isolated tranquility with glorious waterfalls.
North Falls — Oregon geological landmark
The charm of the Trail of Ten Falls is that no two waterfalls really are the same. While South Falls is picturesque from the viewpoints and Lower South Falls offers an amazing intimate setting with the cascading wall of water, North Falls presents an amazing opportunity to hide within the lava flow while gazing out into the abundant rainforest — through the lens of powerful water gushing off a volcanic table.
The approach to this fascinating geological wonder is easily worked from the North Falls Parking lot, which is actually the first glimpse of Silver Falls State Park when approaching from Portland on Highway 214. There’s a temporary restroom here and a machine sells day permits. The turnoff isn’t huge but should allow enough space for vehicles arriving earlier in the day or at otherwise slower times. If not, there is also a scenic viewing turnout, complete with a bird’s-eye view of North Falls, about half a mile up the road which joins up with the Rim Trail to backtrack to the trailhead. This area is meant to be a quick stop location so best to not park here if planning a more in-depth hike.
While the trail to North Falls is a not even half a mile in distance, there is quite a climb of stairs up and down. The initial rush comes with a view from a dramatic cliff dropping hundreds of feet to the frothy water below. The formerly haphazard fence clinging to the ledge is now reinforced in a way that feels very secure. Descend into the misty canyon along-side a shear rock wall long covered with varieties of moss, tiny ferns and mushrooms (photo below). Moisture seems to form and drip from every leaf down to the gravel trail, so be careful with footing.
Once the trail levels out feel the condensation flowing up from the bubbling creek water, constantly pummeled by more runoff. The large boulders with fallen logs tossed about reinforce the impact of nature’s power while the living cousins seem to grow from every crevice on all sides. The forest perfectly frames in the massive 136 foot waterfall, adding beautiful context to the converging of all the organic elements — the fire of the lava, the air blowing the mist, water dripping and flowing in all directions and the smell of the rich earth, holding it all in place.
The trail transforms into a cave-like setting arcing deep under a carved out volcanic stack. Flashing light on the cave ceiling reveals the shapes of trees petrified in an ancient lava flow. The dense smell inside the alcove fuses damp earth with ancient rock and the fresh scent of blowing droplets. Gaze out into the forest beyond the falling water and take in the scene — as if in a secret tunnel — revealing the mysteries of the forest.
This waterfall can easily be experienced in about an hour from the North Falls Parking Lot. It’s worthwhile to also explore Upper North Falls (65 ft — photo shown below) which is gracefully set into a mountain scene of fallen logs stuck in between rocks and a wide swimming-hole type area to facilitate a refreshing Summer swim.
Trail of Ten Falls — leave no trace, take nothing but memories
Silver Falls State Park is iconic in the history of Oregon Parks — created to ensure access to nature for all citizens — and offers geological wonders perfectly fused into a temperate rainforest. The cleansing waters of Silver Creek provide inspiration to thousands of visitors each year, many who visit during a day trip from Portland. I hope this review of the Trail of Ten Falls and the beauty of this park inspires your own visit — whether it’s the complete trail or abbreviated versions — rich with a watery connection to nature.